Steve Drobinsky wants your trash.
Long ago, right-thinking people got the brainy idea that saving stuff to be reused was a lot better than tossing it into a vermin-infested landfill, an ungodly abyss if there ever was one. Steve Drobinsky, an early proponent of this disposable-is-bad ethos, broke from the corporate ranks of a nascent stock market career to pluck copper pipe from the Berkeley dump. From these humble beginnings, hes learned to turn rubbish into rubles, first as co-founder of Urban Ore in 1980, then as owner of Berkeleys Ohmega Salvage, which he purchased in 1986. Now, with three stores on San Pablo Avenue, Ohmega is arguably the Bay Areas premier showcase for vintage tubs and sinks as well as anything else to refresh a dilapidated Victorian or loft space. Without the help of junkyard dogs I sniffed out Drobinsky for a tutorial on the art of salvage.
Paul Kilduff: Are you seeing Ikea stuff showing up here?
Steve Drobinsky: Yeah, some of it brand-new. Some of it in the package.
PK: What was salvage like in the late 70s?
SD: Ohmega started first [founded by original owner in 1975]. Then there was a company called Sunrise Salvage. Then there was Flight Salvage. Then there was Urban Ore, which still is around.
PK: Does Urban Ore still have the rights to the Berkeley landfill?
PK: How does Ohmega acquire its material?
SD: About half is from big remodeling projects. We never used to get calls from people saying, "I bought a house and Im tearing the entire house down." In the last four or five years thats become commonplace. Then the other half comes a few pieces at a time. Somebody will bring a bathtub or a mantle. [One guy] picked us up at the Oakland Airport in his helicopter and flew us down to Santa Cruz. He had some unbelievably fabulous stained glass and mantlesIm talking castle-dimension stufffrom a chateau in Grenoble [city in SE France in the Alps]. He was going to build the big dream house on the [California] coast. A lot of things intervened and the project never happened. He had bought an entire warehouse full of material, which was completely set up as if you were entering a salonas if he was trying out different vignettes with the furniture and the stained glass and the staircases. You couldve lived there. It was phenomenal.
PK: Did you get rid of that stuff?
SD: I was astounded but people were buying 15-foot-high mantles carved with boars heads.
PK: People arent faithfully restoring early ranch-style split-levels yet. Will it happen?
PK: How much Victorian stuff can you continue to live off of?
SD: Its a miracle every time we unearth another bunch of it because how could there be any left?
PK: Did you fix up your own house?
SB: Im barely handy. I can do a few things; hammer a nail. I was just interested in the whole aspect of recycling. Really the way into this was I was working in construction and I went down to the Berkeley dump one day.
PK: This was after your stock-broker days?
SB: Yes. I was taking classes at UC Berkeley on solar water heater installation and I thought, "This is the way to go. This is the future." I went to the Berkeley dump, hoping to find some scrap copper pipe and I talked to a guy out there. He led me over to a chest that was like a pirates chest with a curved top and he opens it and its full with copper pipes. Well, it blew my mind. This was out at the Berkeley dump with trash flying and seagulls and utter chaos, and heres this little oasis of organization that this guy has produced. And he says, "By the way, if you want to take this job over Im leaving on Monday. Its four bucks an hour and all the glass you could want to smash." How could I say no? That was the genesis of Urban Ore. The guy was Dan Knapp, who still runs Urban Ore.
PK: The beginning of dumpster diving.
SB: We ourselves went to the pits at the dump and hauled the stuff out by hand. It was brutal.
PK: Were you wearing a gas mask?
SB: We did have gloves.
PK: Do you ever feel like Sanford and Son?
SB: Oh yeah. But whats the difference between antiques and salvage? Its rarity. Its where the thing is being marketed. But, Im telling you, weve got jewels right here. Look at these little vents. These are some cast-iron arched air vents that are probably 120 years old.
PK: And one of these babies will go for?
SB: Ah, probably $200. I mean I had to pay a lot of money plus were going to have to put some work into it.
PK: What does Ohmega stand for?
SB: Its the 70s and people are protesting and trying to change the culture a little bit. Were not going to just throw everything in the landfill, right? So were talking about Ohms law of resistanceresistance to the way weve done things in the past, which is just turn everything into garbage. And then omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet. This is the end point for the stuff. But now all of a sudden it gets an alphait gets a new life. This is some-thing someone threw out; this is old stuff. So are the ruins of Pompeii. So is every architectural and archaeological treasure that was raided in Egypt or Thailand or Burma and brought to the, quote, civilized world, like France or England, right?
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